Self responsibility – why an Alexander Technique teacher shouldn’t tell you what to do

The pathway to self responsibilityMy son is now a teenager and eager to become more his own person. The other day we were discussing independence, and he said, “I just wish you could spoon-feed me independence a little more quickly!” 

Then he wondered why I was laughing.

Self responsibility

Self responsibility is one of the key concepts of the Alexander Technique. It’s actually the first major principle that I teach from Evolution of a Technique, the piece of writing where FM Alexander describes how he created his work. FM experienced vocal problems that threatened his career and received no lasting solution from his doctor. After two weeks vocal rest, FM again lost his voice onstage during a particularly important engagement. He recounted his conversation with the doctor:

 “Is it not fair, then,” I asked him, “to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?” He thought a moment and said “Yes, that must be so.” “Can you tell me, then,” I asked him, “what it was that I did that caused the trouble?” He frankly admitted that he could not. “Very well,” I replied, “if that is so, I must try to find out for myself.”[1]

When FM Alexander decided to discover for himself what he was doing with his vocal mechanisms that was causing his hoarseness, he was taking responsibility for his own problems. And every student that walks through my door does pretty much the same thing: they’ve decided that whatever is holding them back is a self-imposed restriction, and they want my help in getting rid of it.

My job, then, is to construct a pathway that will help my student in solving her own problems. My task is to make sure she has all the tools and concepts she needs to be able to get rid of her own unhelpful thought and movement behaviours, and even to construct new and better ones. It isn’t my job to tell my student where she is going wrong, or to solve her problems for her, even if I can see them more clearly than she does. Because my job isn’t to impose myself on my student’s life and thinking – my job is to help her become so adept at reasoning her way out of unhelpful behaviours and into more effective ones, that she doesn’t need me any more.

Self responsibility leads to independence

Independence is, in fact, what Alexander said was his ultimate goal. In the preface to his first book, FM said:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself.[2]

FM wanted us all to be so adept at thinking our way out of difficulty and into efficiency that there would be no need for Alexander Technique teachers! We might be a little way off that yet, but it’s still my goal for every student that I teach. i want each and every student to be able to do the work for themselves, and my task each time is to create a pathway – individual to that student – that will help them achieve that goal.

So I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’ll ask a lot of questions, and I’ll give a lot of support when necessary, but I’m always going to make sure that you take responsibility for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.412.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.5.

Lesson thrills: what’s even better than having the good feelings last?

How long do good feelings last in AT lessons?

When students come in for Alexander Technique lessons, they enter an environment where they are encouraged to change their thinking, which changes the way they move. And this very often also brings about a change in the physical sensations that they feel. Very often, students report having great experiences: they feel lighter, or more open, or tingly, or just more awake and alive.

When we have Alexander Technique lessons, we often have good feelings as one of the outcomes. And we expect – or possibly just hope – for the good feelings to continue.

I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably won’t keep on feeling the lovely feelings that you experience immediately after making a change in your thinking and movement. There are good psychological and physiological reasons why this is true, and I’ll give you a quick summary of them below. And most importantly of all, today I want to explain why it’s actually a good thing that we ‘lose’ the good feelings.

Hedonic Adaptation: why psychology says the good feelings don’t last

According to Prof Laurie Santos in her popular Coursera course The Science of Wellbeing, hedonic adaptation is “the process of becoming accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time.” [1]

Cat and hot dogs - good feelings don't last

But what does this mean? It means that if you win the lottery, you think you’re going to experience a massive jump in your level of happiness. Actually, though, you initially won’t be as thrilled as you expect, and your happiness levels will drop to normal levels pretty quickly as you get used to having all the extra cash. Good things don’t affect us as positively as we predict, and bad things don’t hurt us as much as we fear.

Similarly, the cat in the meme above thinks he’s going to enjoy the seventh or eighth hot dog just as much as the first. But those of us who have ever binged on chocolate know that this just won’t be the case – you get used to the taste, and can even become tired of it! This is because your body is physiologically geared to get used to sensations, and then to discount them. Your taste buds stop registering a taste quite quickly; and even if they did, your brain is bombarded with so many pieces of sensory information every second that it couldn’t possibly process them all. It prioritises information that is new or vital to your continued existence, and junks the rest.

This is what happens to all those nice feeling sensations that students often experience as a result of changing their ideas and reducing their overall physical tension. Immediately after losing the tension, they feel fantastic. And understandably, they want to feel fantastic forever. But just the same way as one’s taste buds stop reacting to the delightful taste of chocolate, one’s brain stops registering the delightful feelings of freedom and lightness. They become normal. And if we carry on doing a positive behaviour for long enough, it becomes part of our normal happiness ‘set-point’, and we don’t register it.

But is that sad, or is that something to rejoice in?

Yay! – The good feelings don’t last!

You won’t notice those lovely feelings any more, because the change in thinking that generated them has become normal. Wow! That means you’ve made a substantive, lasting beneficial change to your life! It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.

But I would hope that we don’t just settle for the new improved way we are using ourselves and go blithely about our days. Why settle for good, when even better is just around the corner? If we keep thinking and keep experimenting, we open ourselves to more beneficial changes and more lovely sensations. And more than good feelings, we will be opening ourselves to the possibility of true wellbeing. FM Alexander wrote:

William James suggested to us that we should get up every morning looking for health. We hope to go further, for we have a technique to offer in this connection which will command for the human creature an increasingly high standard of that condition of psycho-physical functioning which makes for health … the all-important duty of the human creature … is that of the continuous individual cultivation of fundamental, constructive conscious control of the human psycho-physical organism and its potentialities. [2]

So if we want to be truly healthy, we need to move beyond living in a non-feeling daze, or even hoping for consistently feeling nice. We just have to keep exploring and improving the way we think.

[1] You’ll find the quote in Week 3, lecture 3.

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.391.

How self censure can hold you back from greatness

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againIn the past couple of articles I’ve discussed how in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical consequences:

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

First I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Last time I talked about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. And in this article I want to talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me)’ part of the thought train. We’ll look at a potential source of habitual self censure, why it holds you back, and what you could do to change it.

Let’s get started.

‘Bad me’ – why does self censure exist?

The important thing to understand about self censure is that it is a learned behaviour – young children just don’t do it. Ken Robinson tells a story about going to see his son’s preschool production of the Nativity, and a wonderful moment that occurred when one of the Three Kings got a little nervous and said his line too soon.

The third boy had to improvise a line he hadn’t learned, or paid much attention to during rehearsal, given that he was only four. The first boy said, “I bring you gold.” The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”
The third boy said, “Frank sent this.”[1]

The child could improvise because he hadn’t learned yet to worry about being wrong. Both Robinson and personal finance expert Robert Kiyosaki comment that our fearful attitude towards being wrong is something that we learn from authority figures such as parents, teachers, and education systems.[2] The more conscientious of us then learn to self-censure. We don’t risk anything that isn’t definitely and canonically right, and if we do and don’t have the right answer, we punish ourselves. It’s a trait that is particularly marked among classical music students – if they are told (and I have more than one reliable account of exactly this happening) that the minimum standard for an orchestral musician is to be note-perfect, then they learn to censure and fear mistakes of any kind.

But where does fear of error and self-censure lead?

The consequences of self censure

Early in his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance FM Alexander quotes a sentence from author Allen Upward:

The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.[3]

Alexander makes the point that what a person thinks has a huge bearing on the way they act and move. If a person learns when she is young that making mistakes is a bad thing and takes that message as a core belief, then her actions will conform to that belief. She may start to avoid situations where she needs to state an opinion or make a judgement, just in case she gets it wrong. She may, in fact, begin to limit her activities, or at least the manner in which she does them, in order to conform to the belief that being wrong is bad. For example, a violinist may begin to play with perfect intonation and complete accuracy to the score, but with no interpretative flair or interest. Worse, the violinist may even begin to create physical behaviours that are the physical equivalent of the mental limitation he has placed upon himself.

The mental attitude can become a physical behaviour.

When therefore we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [4]

Escaping ‘bad me’

From all that we’ve seen so far, I think you’ll agree that it is clearly a good idea to escape the clutches of ‘bad me’ syndrome! Not only will you experience a better quality of life through being calmer and less anxious about making mistakes, you are likely to notice improvements in the freedom and flexibility of your physical movement, too. But how to do it?

Non-AT tools

Well, FM Alexander held a very high opinion of reasoning, and of the “just use and exercise of conscious reason.” [5] He wanted his students – and that means all of us reading and writing this blog – to be able to use their reasoning powers and think their way out of situations. But that can be really hard if you’re suffering with anxiety and worry. There are plenty of non Alexander Technique tools you can use to address these particular issues, from gratitude journals, affirmations and savouring exercises, right through to mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy. These aren’t AT tools so I won’t discuss them here, but I invite you to research them and find the ones that work most effectively for you.

Alexander Technique to beat ‘bad me’

What I will suggest, however, is that you practise the “just use and exercise of reason” – and this is an Alexander Technique tool. We learn to use our minds more effectively by playing with movement. Other tools will help us directly with the self censure, but indirectly the Alexander Technique helps too. When we focus on one simple movement, we give ourselves permission to play and experiment. This is by definition open-ended and with no right answer. In big ‘important’ activities (like playing music) this might be threatening but for most students it’s okay because it’s just a simple movement, and seems to fall beneath the threshold of anxiety. In effect, we teach ourselves how to be playful again.

Pick an activity and really investigate it. It could be something as simple as picking up the kettle! Really notice what muscles and joints you use when you do the activity. Think about what muscles and joints would most efficiently do the job. See if you can use just these. Evaluate – rejoice in success, and learn from failure. Repeat.

And have fun.

[1] Robinson, K., The Element, London, Penguin, 2009, p.15.
[2] Kiyosaki, R. &Bennett, H.Z, If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t go to School, Fairfield, Aslan, 1993, p.83.
[3] Upward, A. quoted in Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.51.
[4] ibid., p.52.
[5] ibid., p.57.

Does your concept of education hold you back from brilliance?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?Last time, you’ll remember that we discussed how, in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Last time I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Next time I’ll talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me}’ part of the thought train. And in this article I want to talk about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. It’s implicit in the thought train above, and it gets in the way of us improving.

Let’s get started.

Education – what it so often appears to be

“There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting”

Most of us have been through some sort of school system, and I think most of us have at some point been exposed to the idea of the ‘right answer’. A typical scenario runs a bit like this:

A teacher asks a question of a class of children. There is an immediate sea of hands. Who will be labelled the brightest child? The one who puts up their hand and answers the question not simply correctly, but faster than anyone else.

And what happens to the student who puts up their hand but doesn’t give the answer the teacher is expecting? At best, they are told they are incorrect. At worst, the child is put down in such a way that they feel belittled and ashamed.

Of course, when we get a bit older we realise that not all of life works this way. We learn that sometimes there may be multiple right answers, or no right answer at all. But how many of us still cling in our hearts to the simplistic model of ‘the one right answer’? And how many of us live our lives with that model in the back of our minds, ruling our interactions?

If a student asks me for the Right Way to sit, they are unwittingly conforming to this model. It might be okay for arithmetic, but it doesn’t function well when we look at the multiplicity of variables we encounter every time we want to sit. [1]

So what other options are there?

Education – what it could be

Actually, what if the heart of education was about the concept of options? What if the job of a teacher is to give a student the tools so that she can discover the options in a given circumstance, and then reason out the best course of action?

And to my mind that’s what good education should be about: giving students the tools so that they can work things out for themselves. So often our experience of schooling systems has bludgeoned us into believing that education is about being told what to do. I much prefer FM Alexander’s concept of teaching:

… by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas, or one side only of a controversial subject. Why should not the child’s powers of intelligence be trained? [2]

If we persist in looking for the one ‘right way’, we blind ourselves to the given circumstances before us. We end up denying ourselves important information and risk settling for something less than optimal in our efforts to Be Right. How silly that the quest for perfection should cause limitation and a settling for something that  doesn’t fulfil the needs of the moment.

So don’t settle. Look at the circumstances in front of you, and work from there. Work out what is best for you, using your “latent powers of originality.” You won’t be Right – you’ll be something far more interesting. You’ll be adventuring.

Have fun.

[1] chair height, chair slope, chair back, floor surface, shoes, space in front of and around chair…

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete Irdeat ed., p.88.

Image by Stuart Miles,

The fallacy of the One Right Way

“Why won’t you just tell me what to do?!”

There is no One Right Way to sit.In early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. This is entirely understandable. They’ve come to me because whatever they’re doing at the moment has caused them trouble, and they want to fix it so the trouble goes away.

But there’s a logical fallacy at work, and a misunderstanding about what education is about. There’s also often a degree of self criticism. These are big topics and I want to take time to talk about them, so this week I will deal just with the logical fallacy. Next time I’ll talk about how our concept of education holds us back. Finally, I’ll talk about the issue of self criticism.


The logical fallacy of the One Right Way

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Let’s look at the idea that there’s a right way of, say, sitting, and at least one wrong way. It sounds like life would be very simple if there were just One Right Way of sitting on a chair. We could just learn it, use it, and not have to think about it again. But it really wouldn’t be simple at all, for this reason:

If this was true, we would first have to decide if there was only one right way, or if we would allow One Right Way for each circumstance (eg dining chair, office chair, car seat). At the very least, we’d end up with a list of Right Ways to suit our usual set of furniture and circumstances.

But what if the circumstances subtly alter – like having to get into the car with the seat a little further forward than usual? We would either have to suffer Doing Something Not Right, or make sure we constructed a set of Right Ways to deal with all conceivable changes of circumstance.

And then we’d end up with a big list of Right Ways. And we’d have to memorise them all.

That sounds like a lot of work to me. I’d much rather learn the principles behind constructing a Best Way (for now) for any circumstance as it arose, and then learn how to think and apply it moment by moment. In the end, it’s just so much easier.

And that’s what Alexander Technique lessons are: learning how to construct a Best Way (for now) for the moment that you’re in. Don’t be fooled by the apparent unthinking simplicity of the One Right Way. It leads to lists, prohibitions (mustn’t do the wrong thing!), and complexity. Go for gold, and learn how to reason out the Best Way (for now) instead.

Is your self image up-to-date with reality?

Self image is how we see ourselvesThe other day I was working  with a student who historically had a tendency to pull his shoulders forwards. The student was convinced he was still doing this. Guess what?  He wasn’t. His self image was lagging behind the physical reality.

Self image: not seeing ourselves as others see us

FM Alexander writes in his second book about a particular kind of preconceived idea, in which we do not see ourselves as others see us. He uses it to refer to people whose sense of themselves is so out of step with reality that they perceive as entirely normal characteristic that the outside world would view as being well away from anatomic norms.

As an illustration, FM picks an example from his own teaching experience of a man with a stutter. In lessons, speaking slowly, the stutter vanished. But when asked to speak in that way in his daily life, the student relapsed I to his stutter as he commented that “Everyone would notice me!”

It’s an extreme example, but it really demonstrates how we all have the ability to be entirely mistaken about how others see us. As FM said:

He [the student] no longer saw things as they were, and was out of communication with reasoning, where his consciousness of his defects was concerned.[1]

But it works the other way, too.

Self image lag

There’s a particularly fascinating version of this kind of mistaken self-perception that arises in Alexander Technique students. They started coming to lessons with a particular physical issue – like having their shoulders pulled forwards – and have come to identify themselves in some way as someone who has this issue. The student is no longer just Joe Bloggs; they are Joe Bloggs, the Person with the Shoulders.

And even after they’ve done massive amounts of work on their particular issue and made huge improvements, it is likely that they haven’t yet altered their identity. They are still Joe Bloggs with the Shoulders, not simple Joe Bloggs. In order to truly change, the student still needs to do the vital work of changing their self image to correspond with the new physical reality.

My challenge to you today is this: what have you been working on recently? Are you so fixated on the fault that you’ve perceived that it has become part of your identity? Check and see if you too need to do a little bit of work on your self image!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.302.

Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay.

The talent myth: what it really takes to be an ‘overnight success’

Steve Martin worked hard and long to be an overnight successIf you’re in the UK, you may have been watching the amazing young people performing in the BBC Young Musician 2018 competition. Or possibly you’ve watched young people achieving amazing things in competitions like the Commonwealth Games. Very often you’ll hear people talk about how talented these young people are; the term ‘natural talent’ gets bandied around in sporting circles very frequently. But if talent doesn’t really exist (as many writers discuss), then what is the key to achievement? What does it take to be an ‘overnight success’?

It’s not just about the hours

Pretty much everyone involved in sports or performance has heard about the 10 000 hours rule. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, very simply put it puts forward the idea that to  achieve mastery in a skill one needs to do 10 000 hours of practice. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Anyone who has seen a child mindlessly playing through a Bach Minuet over and over with exactly the same mistakes every time knows that just doing the hours mindlessly isn’t enough. We need to do deliberate practice – something that actually deals with the mistakes and moves us forward. So what is it that makes a success from an also-ran?

I’ve been reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin became a huge name in comedy in the mid-seventies, and it would be tempting to think that his talent sprang fully-formed onto the TV screen. However, in his autobiography Martin gives a brilliant description of the sheer quantity of work that it took to be an overnight success.

There are two key principles that led to Martin’s eventual success, and they mirror principles FM Alexander discussed in his work: analysis; and evaluation.

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

Martin certainly did the hours – he started working at Disneyland selling programmes at age 10! But he didn’t just sell programmes. He watched the man who did rope tricks, and learned them well enough to become an assistant. He frequented the magic shop, started working there, and learned the tricks so well that he got occasional work as a magician. And he spent time in the auditorium watching the comedians and analysing their timing. Note that the young Martin didn’t just copy the jokes. He worked to understand how the professionals got their results – he tried to learn the principles behind the laughs.[1]

FM Alexander would have commended the young Martin’s efforts. He wrote:

To achieve these results they must study and master the same principles, but they could never reproduce them by a series of imitative acts divorced from knowledge of the processes involved and skill in using these processes. [2]

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

However, the teenage Martin didn’t content himself with just analysing the efforts of others. He also evaluate his own performance. In his book he shares an example page of the performance notes he used to write after every performance. 

“I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or the Kiwanis Club. “Excellent!” or “Big laugh!” or “Quiet,” I would write … then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.” [3]

By doing this kind of work, Martin mirrored the kind of evaluation that Alexander himself undertook when trying to solve his vocal problems. FM didn’t just work on a trial-by-error basis. In Evolution of a Technique he gives a clear description of how he made hypotheses, tested them, and then evaluated the results in order to refine his ideas.

And Martin, like FM Alexander, kept working and refining over a long period of time: “My act was eclectic, and it took ten more years for me to make sense of it.”[4] So time IS important, but it isn’t the only, or even the primary factor. If we want to be an ‘overnight success’, we have to be prepared to do the long hours not of mindless repetition, but of analysis and evaluation. Those are the skills that we need to hone if we truly want to succeed.

[1]Martin, S., Born Standing Up, London, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p.36.

[2]Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.121.

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

[4] ibid., pp.65-6.

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from

Don’t trust teachers implicitly!

trust teachers but don't follow them blindlyShould you trust teachers implicitly? Should you accept the advice of a professional unconditionally?

I met a person recently who had been advised by a doctor that, in order to avoid upsetting the arthritis in their knees, they should avoid going up stairs and not carry anything heavy. The person not only trusted the advice, but seemed to ‘help it along’. Without being aware of it, they made the doctor’s advice pertinent by placing extra strain on their knees. They would almost push themselves down into the floor at the base of the stairs, as if to ensure that their knees were in the least beneficial position for the physical act of climbing the stairs. Their knees would hurt, thus proving the doctor’s advice was sound. I stress: they weren’t aware of the physical movement, but they were very clear on their belief in the doctor’s advice.

Belief creates physical movement

Students in my classes are well used to me remarking that the way we describe things and the language we use to describe them are incredibly important. If we describe our hip joints as being somewhere on the sides of the body and up quite high, then that’s where we’ll move. (This isn’t where the hip joint is, by the way!) But this applies just as much, if not more, to advice we are given by teachers and medical practitioners. If we trust a teacher or other professional, we are likely to listen to their advice, and sometimes a little more unconditionally than is advisable. We can fall into one of these traps:

1. Blindly following advice without understanding it

FM Alexander fell into this trap when he had acting lessons with Mr James Cathcart. FM was told to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’ and conscientiously tried to do so. He never asked Mr Cathcart what he meant, or what the instruction was trying to achieve. Later, FM realised that the tension in his feet was contributing to the whole-body misuse that culminated in him losing his voice onstage.[1]

2. Thinking we are following the advice, but really doing something different

My music students often speak of their instrument teacher telling them to, for example, use their bow in a particular way on their violins. They go away and think they are doing what their teacher told them, only to find out in the lesson the following week that they’ve been doing it completely wrongly. How frustrating!

3. Following the advice so carefully that we copy the movement behaviours of the person giving it

Many years ago, I had a lecturer who wanted to remind his class that thinking required us to get past a degree of mental inertia. He was fond of saying, “Thinking hurts.” But it wasn’t just a metaphor – he would actually jam his head back and down into his torso as he said it. But because he was a well-like and influential teacher, his class started to take on board not just the words, but the accompanying physical gesture. We started suffering recurring headaches!

4. Following advice that is just plain wrong.

I think we can probably all think of examples of this!

What to do?

The advice from me is this: don’t check your brain in at the door! Hold all advice lightly – even the advice from me. Interrogate everything. Work out what you think is most likely to be true, but even then, continue to gently question and test the limits of what you think is true. FM would call this being ‘open-minded‘. Don’t trust teachers implicitly, but don’t blindly believe your own ideas, either. If you can manage it, you’ll find that the act of reasoning out why you’re being told what you’re told will help you to improve faster and more efficiently.

But that’s just my idea. Go and test it for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Photograph of Grayson Perry artwork by Jennifer Mackerras

Correcting unshakeable belief: what if your teacher was actually right?

Correcting unshakeable belief is like moving a big rock!

Correcting Unshakeable Belief…

I’ve been working with a trumpet student recently. He likes to play his trumpet standing, and as he does so he juts his pelvis forwards and pulls his upper thoracic spine backwards – a bit like the shop dummies at many UK clothing stores! I’ve worked with him; explained how the extension through his thoracic spine prevents movement in his ribs and interferes with his breathing; done hands-on work and given him the experience of the improvement of tone and breath control when he stops the ‘H&M pelvic thrust’.

So has he changed it? Nope.

You see, he is convinced it helps him reach the high notes. Even though he knows that change in pitch happens via valves and embouchure, on some level he believes that the extension in his spine is essential for high notes, and that he won’t reach them if he doesn’t do it. He has an apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity of jutting his pelvis forwards.

I’m sure that most of us, if pushed, could think of a similar experience. I can clearly remember having a very similar interaction with my tennis teacher.

So why didn’t I do what my tennis teacher told me? Why doesn’t my trumpet student do what I suggest, especially when he has had a clear demonstration of the improvement he could experience? After all, if we’re paying a teacher to help us, why don’t we follow their advice?

The answer is that, on some level, we believe that we know better. We have an (apparently) unshakeable belief. And correcting unshakeable belief seems like a very big thing to accomplish.

A question of belief

Everything we do and every action that we make is, ultimately, a result of the constellation of ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true, and that constitute what FM Alexander called our psycho-physical make-up.

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. [1]

When we carry out an action it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, it conforms to our image of ourselves and our place in the world. My student, for example, just his pelvis forwards when he changes pitch because on some level he believes he has to. It conforms to his beliefs about himself and trumpet playing. When I come along and demonstrate to him that he doesn’t need to make the jutting movement with his pelvis, I create for the student a dilemma. Do he believe me, or do he trust in his own untested beliefs?

This is the challenge faced by a student in pretty much any Alexander Technique lesson. If the demonstration is sufficiently strong or the previous belief not strongly held, then the student will change what they are doing quickly and easily. But if the teacher’s demonstration challenges a movement behaviour that keys into a core belief about what the student needs to do to exist in the world, then they are likely to cling to the old behaviour.

But the dilemma won’t go away. It will sit in the student’s mind and irritate, a bit like having a stone in your shoe. Sooner or later, my student is going to have to think about his jutting pelvis!

So how do you deal with this situation?

As a teacher, you just have to accept that sometimes (often?) the student thinks they know better than you. Your job is to, in Alexander’s words,  “the placing of facts, for and against, before the [student], in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality.” [2] You can’t take any responsibility for a student’s understanding, only your presentation of material before them!

As a student, you have to approach each lesson mindful of the fact that you come bearing beliefs and assumptions that probably aren’t helping you. If your teacher suggests a change to what you are doing, you need to inhibit your instinctive response (to disagree!) and then as open-mindedly as possible, try what your teacher suggests.

Correcting unshakeable belief is a matter of playing the long game. Just keep presenting the facts (if you’re the teacher), and keep trying to have an open mind (if you’re the student). Sooner or later, something has to give.

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete ed., p.304.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete ed., p.88.